Philippos Yiapanis explains how he created a small kingdom just outside Limassol!

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Philippos Yiapanis, born in Varosi, Famagusta, had plans to become a shipbuilder and create his own shipbuilding factory near the Famagusta Sea. His plans were instantly overthrown, however, when he was taken prisoner during the Turkish invasion of 1974, and eventually became a refugee. After many years, it was this traumatic experience of the war that finally led Philippos to create an immensely impressive body of work in his new home, Limassol.

Until the mid-1990s, the name of the small village of Fasoula was, for most people, linked to the dump that operated a few kilometers away. When Philippos Yiapanis finally decided to heed the calling that had been growing inside him for years and become a sculptor, he found in Fasoula a place that reminded him of the home he left behind in Varosi. He thus created his own ‘Little Salamis,’ with a one-of-a-kind Museum and sculpture park, attracting the interest of people from all over the world to this little corner in the Mediterranean.

The man who gave Limassol one of its most important attractions originally grew up within a rural family among the citrus orchards of Varosi. At the time, neither he nor his parents could have ever imagined he would be an artist, not even when, at age 14, he carved the trunk of an orange tree and created a sculpture to present at school. At the time, he thought that he would become a shipbuilder, and use his skills to carve wood for his ships. And while his status as a refugee deprived him of the sea next to which he grew up, at the same time it urged him to express his loss, pain, hopes and expectations in a way that was uniquely his.

Today, the ship (of the return) is one of the most dominant forms and concepts in the sculptures he creates.

Why did it take nearly 20 years for you to turn to sculpting?
After we settled in Limassol and I finished school, I actually began to study shipbuilding, as was my aim. I never become a shipbuilder by profession, however. For many years, I worked alongside my father-in-law, helping out with the family business, where I got caught up in accounting and computers. At some point I felt that I needed an outlet for all that was churning within me: ideas, thoughts, dreams.

The first sculptures I made, however, could not be exhibited anywhere, as at that time, no galleries would accept the works of an amateur artist who did not even hold a degree in Fine Arts.

What brought you to Fasoula?
When my work began to grow and could not all fit anywhere, I began looking for a space where I could create my own workshop, far from the noise of the city, with my own gallery. I searched various villages and, almost by chance, ended up in Fasoula.

On the road towards this field, I saw a cluster of cypress trees which reminded me of the road I used to take to go home, among the fields of Agia Paraskevi. And so, I made the decision to buy it, though many at the time mocked me for the amount (almost 19,000 pounds) I paid.

First I built the workshop, at the southern edge of the plot, and immediately afterwards, I was tasked with the creation of an amphitheater which I named ‘Little Salamis,’ as a reminder of all that we left behind. I wanted to use this space to host various events. I built the park myself, with my own 2 hands, using rocks that I found in the nearby fields.

Did you face any difficulties when embarking on this project?
The biggest difficulties are the obstacles created by bureaucracy and governmental procedures. I truly believe in the people of Cyprus, but the system is full of hindrances that it makes it difficult for people who have ideas to put them into action. When someone wishes to create something new in our country, they meet all kinds of obstacles and delays. For example, when I decided to create the amphitheater for events, I had to wait 12 whole years to receive permits for restrooms.

"I have a special character trait that has aided me in this process: I never stop pushing, I never back down on what is my right, and I don’t let myself be defeated. Of course, there are people who gave up in the face of such difficulties, and their plans remained unfulfilled."

Doesn’t such a large project also require large amounts of funds?
At first, I did it with some money I had put aside, by selling some of my initial works. The rest slowly came together. I never added up the figures to know exactly what I spent.

I did deprive myself of a lot, however, in order to make it, including days off, holidays, and summers. But it is something I can look back on and be proud of. I can feel the satisfaction of setting a goal and meeting it. If you want something, but don’t set a goal to make it happen, you will always be waiting for someone else to do it for you.

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Today, besides the park itself and Art Nest, which stands right in the middle of it, Fasoula also enjoys some remarkable works by Philippos Yiapanis, all of which adorn various central points in the village.

The Museum is an especially impressive project. How did it come about?
The Museum is the most recent addition. I needed a larger space to exhibit my works. Additionally, I had an idea in my head for a space that would welcome people from across the world, regardless of their nationality, religion, culture or background, to meet and create together, exchanging ideas and opinions. And thus Art Nest, as I named the Museum, was born.

Did your desire to create a space of such symbolic fellowship have anything to do with your experiences during the invasion? 
All of my preoccupation with sculpting is an extension of what I experienced in 1974. At the time, in fact, I even experienced an incident that confirmed to me that humanity has no ethnicity or religion. Right before I found myself on the front line, many cowardly murders of prisoners and civilians had been taking place, and when it was my turn, a young Turkish officer took over. When he realized that these executions were being carried out, he took off his belt and began to punish the Turkish soldiers who had participated in these actions. This was a man who was human, even though he was the invader. 

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This must have certainly required much larger funding, naturally.
Yes, certainly. I had initially secured an amount of €200,000 from EU funds. However, for its completion, I received assistance from people who made me truly believe that humanity does not see color, religion, or country. Mr. Ghazi Abu Nahl, upon his visit to the space, learned about my story as a refugee and immediately decided to allocate €200,000 to Art Nest, as he himself had gone through the same struggles as a refugee from Palestine, yet continued to believe in kinship among people, same as myself. Another friend, also Arab, decided to cover the publication costs for a book with my artwork, and the proceeds of the sale contributed to the completion of Art Nest.

“I tend to urge young children to follow their own dreams and not those of their parents. Young people are much further ahead in their thinking than the older generations, but they are not given enough space to express themselves and their ideas.”

Do you have any regrets?
I don’t regret any of what I have created. Perhaps my only regret is the fact that I missed some of the most beautiful years of my son growing up, because I was so engrossed in my work. However, I feel a great satisfaction, especially when new people visit and I see how excited they get with all that they see. It would please me to see more students visiting, but organized trips from schools are limited. At some point, following a comment of mine on social media, a senior official from the Ministry of Education visited the Museum to find out whether it is worth bringing students for a visit.

She had said that she cannot approve student visits to a place where there are nude statues. This is, of course, outrageous, because then we would have to put clothes on the statues in the Acropolis or the Louvre each time students visit these places!

You tend to have quite a few nude figures in your work.
Yes, because I believe the nude is linked to creation. Nudity is not a bad thing. Neither the female breasts nor the phallus cause problems. The problems are caused by our minds. The image of the naked body is completely normal, as is sexual attraction, because if it weren’t for that, people would not reproduce. There is, however, a seedy element to nudity, which is what we see daily via the media, whether on television, in magazines, or on the internet. These are the true lewd images, because they are projected when a medium has nothing else to show, and they are looking to attract attention and sell advertising through dishonest means.

Art Nest is a work in progress. Sculptor Yiapanis is always working on something, whether it’s designing a new space, or testing the previously-unexplored field of painting, or taking care of the garden. After all, having grown up among the orchards, he will always feel at home with nature and the earth.

What is your dream for the future?
My biggest dream is to return to Varosi at some point, though the ideal would be to return as and relive my experiences as a 17 year old. If I had the chance to return now, of course, I would not leave behind this space that I created in Limassol, it would still continue to operate. I consider all of Cyprus my home, not just Famagusta. I would, however, build a corresponding, even better space there.

Is hatred towards the enemy among the sentiments harbored by refugees?
Why should I hate? Where will that lead me? One would expect me to feel hate because I lived through the war, was taken prisoner, and beaten and tortured, and then became a refugee. But just because I experienced such barbarity does not mean I should want to kill or get revenge. Revenge only brings retaliation, and this leads to new disasters. I believe the majority of people who have suffered and were hit by disasters only wish for peace. The ones who preach revenge are the ones who have not suffered. I even remember myself, when Kyrenian refugees began to arrive in July 1974, not really understanding what they were going through until I lived through it too, just a month later.

Having enjoyed a wealth of images of the sea as a child, Philippos Yiapanis created a sculpture depicting the daily toil of a fisherman. If you ask him, however, whether the fisherman is from Varosi or from Limassol, he will reply that people across Cyprus all have the same form and live the same life, and he has never made differentiated among them.

There is a tendency to easily accept foreigners with money to our country, and yet treat poor people from other countries with contempt, as if they are inferior beings whom we can exploit. We have not learned to accept peoples’ diversity, and one of the biggest problems we have in Cyprus is that we never got to know the settlements of the Armenians, the Maronites, the Turkish Cypriots, in order to familiarize ourselves with diversity.

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The best way to get to know the unique personality of Philippos Yiapanis is to visit this exceptional space of art and culture that he created in Fasoula.

A free spirit, independent, and even considered by many to be eccentric, Philippos Yiapanis has managed to create from scratch something of which residents of Limassol, Varosi, and all of Cyprus can all feel proud. After all, he himself does not accept any distinctions, parochial or otherwise. By dedicating 3 decades of his life to this space, he has created a way to express himself, and has learned how to be at peace with himself and his life. At the same time, however, he has become an example of how following one’s dreams, and making the impossible possible in order to fulfill them, can also have multiple benefits for ourselves and the people around us.

Being able to give so generously and unselfishly is something that grows within society as a whole, and this is perhaps the very definition of a creative person. In the case of Philippos Yiapanis, this creativity is transmuted into artistry, and the course that he followed to get there is certainly worth highlighting through All About Limassol, the Official Guide of Limassol. Philippos himself believes that every person has within them an artist, a creator. If, in the end, we all manage to bring this side of us out into the open, our country can only become even more beautiful by the day.